Fabius Chen

Can sports sponsorship here go beyond 'big name' deals?

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

ONE is the national airline of Singapore; the other is a major driver of tourism dollars.

Based on their profiles alone, few would argue against the fact that the marriage between Singapore Airlines and the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix is a match made in cross-promotional heaven.

Announced last week, the union will see the next two editions of the night race take the airline's name in exchange for an annual fee believed to be worth $10 million to $15 million. That is said to be "close to" the amount that predecessor SingTel paid Formula One Group in each of its six years as title sponsor of the event, dubbed the jewel in the F1 crown.

While this announcement comes on the back of similar mega deals in recent months involving naming rights of venues and events, and is good for Singapore sports, there is also no running away from the fact that only a fraction of the amount is trickling down to the national sports associations (NSAs) and their elite athletes.

But they are the ones who will spearhead Singapore's challenge for sporting supremacy abroad as well as provide a rallying point for Singaporeans and inspiration for the next generation of local sportsmen. In other words, they are worthy of direct support.

As of now, companies seem to prefer linking their names to high-profile events or facilities in a bid to get more mileage from their financial support - and see reaching out to the wider community as a greater goal.

Last December, the OCBC Group sealed a 15-year naming rights deal worth over $50 million with the Singapore Sports Hub which will, apart from sports, also roll out entertainment and retail options for the public.

This is in addition to sponsoring the annual OCBC Cycle Singapore event and OCBC Pro Cycling Team - two initiatives that have cost close to a total of $10 million over the past six years.

This week, Standard Chartered announced a three-year, $10.5 million extension to its title sponsorship of the Singapore Marathon.

"Sports resonate across the markets we operate in and we've had the opportunity to leverage the various sponsorships to differentiate our brand," StanChart Singapore's chief executive officer Neeraj Swaroop said.

"Take the marathon as an example - it is a fantastic platform for us to connect with the community and our staff."

Echoing these sentiments too was Great Eastern Life's chief marketing officer Colin Chan.

"Our support for sport is integral to Great Eastern's DNA," he said. "We have made it a priority to promote a healthy lifestyle to Singaporeans of all ages and all walks of life through sport."

The insurance group shells out about $2 million each year on branding the Great Eastern Women's Run and as co-title sponsor of the football S-League. Property company OUE also spent a six-figure sum on the naming rights to badminton's Singapore Open.

All these add up to over $80 million being committed to the local sporting scene in the last five months alone.

But, as mentioned earlier, only a fraction of the largesse is filtering down to the national sports associations and their elite athletes.

With Sport Singapore splitting an $80.77 million war chest from the Government among 49 of its affiliates this year, the onus has been on the respective associations to find additional funding.

Among the most successful in this regard are the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) and the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) but, even together, they collect no more than $7 million in sponsorship dollars each year.

This money goes towards funding development programmes, as well as overseas training stints and competitions.

But success does not guarantee more; even with one world championship and an Olympic silver medal under her belt, Singapore's top paddler Feng Tianwei struggles to measure up to athletes from neighbouring countries in the endorsement stakes.

Just across the Causeway, local conglomerate Mulpha Sports in 2003 signed Nicol David - then 19 - to a RM1.3 million deal that saw the future squash queen switch her racquet allegiance from Dunlop to Head.

Malaysia's badminton world No. 1 Lee Chong Wei, meanwhile, is believed to earn between RM5 million (S$1.9 million) and RM7 million each year - a sum greatly augmented by his endorsement deals with 100Plus, Yonex and Maxis among others.

Golf icon Tiger Woods and football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, respectively earned US$65 million (S$81.7 million) and US$21 million in endorsements alone last year.

But securing sponsorship deals does not come easy.

Just ask STTA president Lee Bee Wah who, since taking charge in 2008, has successfully courted the likes of Mitsubishi Electric, Neo Garden Catering, 100Plus and Grace Shine.

"Sport Singapore does not provide full funding for our development plans so sponsorships are essential to allow for the continued growth and success of Singapore Table Tennis," said Ms Lee, who is also MP for Nee Soon South constituency.

"But, till today, there are companies which think that it is the role of the Government to fund local sports and do not see it as a platform for corporate branding," she noted.

"It is gratifying to see many sponsors backing the Sports Hub and next year's SEA Games.

"But let's not forget that the pool of sponsors is very small so it is  getting harder and harder for NSAs to secure sponsorships."

Integrated sports marketing agency Red Card Group's managing director R. Sasikumar, agreed, adding that "the Singapore market is too small" for local events to be viewed as lucrative sponsorship opportunities.

"Any brand's goal is to sell its products or services," said the former national footballer who, in 2011, brought Canon in as title sponsor of the Lion City Cup youth tournament on a three-year, $1 million deal.

"Within Singapore, the critical mass just isn't there for companies to justify spending huge amounts on sponsorships, especially in the sporting scene."

Perhaps more companies should follow in the footsteps of AirAsia, which looks at both ends of the sponsorship spectrum.

In July last year, the Malaysian-owned low-cost carrier inked a three-year, $1.8 million agreement to become the official airline of the FAS.

The airline, which also sponsors English second-tier football club Queens Park Rangers, followed that up last week by throwing its weight behind national marathoner Mok Ying Ren in his bid to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with a $100,000 deal that will mainly cover his flights.

"Yes, we started from Malaysia but that doesn't mean we should stay there," AirAsia Singapore's chief executive officer Logan Velaitham said of the decision to support Singapore's sporting endeavours.

"Money is one thing. What we're trying to do here is get more corporates to come on board and help nurture talent.

"It's a bit sad that in this part of the world, athletes don't get the kind of exposure and support as they do in Western countries."

Those have to be earned the hard way, as Dr Mok can attest to.

This, after spending countless hours approaching potential sponsors in a bid to raise the $100,000 in cash he requires to train full time until the 2016 Games.

"Some people think it's been easy for me to get sponsors but they don't see the hard work that goes into it," said the 25-year-old, who is now $60,000 closer to a dream he went public with in December 2012. "You've got to do a lot of homework beforehand and when you meet with prospective sponsors, it's a matter of being thick-skinned and selling your strengths."

And that, Nominated MP Nicholas Fang believes, is what more NSAs have to learn to do in their sponsorship-dollar search.

"There are corporates out there that lack an understanding of the power of sport in reaching out to the local community," said the former national fencer.

"Therefore, it's up to the NSAs to provide a linkage to the benefits of sponsorship and reassure potential sponsors that they are professionally run organisations.

"This is crucial because whether you're looking at mass-participation or high-performance sport, it's money that talks."

fabiusc@sph.com.sg